2023 NLDS: Phillies vs. Braves – Pitching Preview

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Philadelphia Phillies’ Aaron Nola pitches to a Miami Marlins batter during the first inning of Game 2 of an NL wild-card baseball playoff series Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

We are a week into October, and talk about your déjà vu – but the Philadelphia Phillies are in the postseason and have once again swept their way through the Wild Card round. Now, just like 2022, they are facing a match up with the National League East champion Atlanta Braves in the Divisional Round. The path to get to this point may have a similar feel to 2022, but the energy around both teams is definitely different.

If you have been tuned into the Phillies and Braves at all this season – you know about the offenses. Historically great performances from the Braves – led by the first ever 40 HR-70 SB season in MLB history from lead-off man Ronald Acuña Jr., vs. a franchise record setting offense with six players recording 20+ homers for the first time in Philadelphia’s 141 year history.

The rosters are well stacked up, but there is some uncertainty about how the pitching staffs match up against both these offenses, and each other.

Phillies Rotation

Manager Rob Thomson confirmed on Friday that starters will follow this order – Ranger Suarez in Game 1, then the two aces who dominated the Marlins in the previous round, Zack Wheeler and Aaron Nola, will toe the rubber in in Games 2 and 3, respectively. The added off-days in the playoff schedule will allow Suarez and Wheeler to return for Games 4 and 5 on full rest. The three lead men for the Phillies have pitched to the tune of a combined 3.14 ERA over 43 innings against the Braves this season.\

Phillies starters vs. Braves this season

  • Aaron Nola: 0-0 record (3 stars), 18 IP, 3.50 ERA, 1.111 WHIP, 10.0 K/9
  • Ranger Suarez – 0-0 record (1 start), 6 IP, 1.50 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 7 Ks
  • Zack Wheeler – 2-0 record (3 starts), 19 IP, 3.32 ERA, 1.000 WHIP, 21 Ks, 6 BBs
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Philadelphia Phillies’ Ranger Suarez pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Tuesday, June 20, 2023, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Not only have they all been successful against Atlanta this season, but all three starters have a sub 3.50 ERA against the Braves in their careers. Digging even deeper, the order of pitchers makes sense for the Phillies as well. Nola has once again was significantly better at Citizens Bank Park than anywhere else this year, and has a 3.20 ERA at home in his career. However, he’s struggled at Truist Park since it opened in 2016. In 14 starts, he is 3-7 with a 4.35 ERA at Atlanta’s home park, so him opening the Philadelphia portion of the series fits him comfortably.

Suarez starting in Atlanta fits his 2023 trends as well. The reliable left-hander’s ERA nearly doubles when he returns to Philadelphia (2.75 ERA on the road, 5.45 ERA at home) this year. Over his career, however, his numbers in both Philadelphia and Atlanta are almost as even as his demeanor on the mound. Wheeler pitched extremely well in Atlanta’s old stadium, and has still been solid since the Braves moved to Cumberland – in 11 starts he has a 3.65 ERA with a 1.304 WHIP and 9.0 K/9. Overall, Phillies fans should feel confident in the three men chosen to be in the rotation against this stout Braves offense.

Braves Rotation

From afar, it seems the Braves have always had another young, impact arm ready to call up at a moment’s notice. As a fan of a NL East rival, it has felt like that for decades. But looking at the roster and the match ups for this round, suddenly there are questions around Atlanta’s rotation. Clear ace Spencer Strider will go in Game 1, followed by Max Fried in Game 2.

Strider has the mustache and the stuff to stifle any hitter, but his second half ERA jumped almost a full run. He has also turned in worse results at home vs. on the road this season. Not to mention that Atlanta fans can get loud and apparently that might bother him a bit.

However, he took care of the Phillies with ease this season – his 2.42 ERA across 4 starts is his best against a team he has more than two starts against this year. If the series goes long, that’s even better for Strider as he has dominated the Phillies in Philadelphia in 2023 (2 starts, 1.38 ERA, 1.077 WHIP, 12.5 K/9). I am sure that he will do his best to not focus on his performance in last year’s NLDS against the Phillies, but there will be plenty of reminders and I will provide another – 2.1 IP, 5 earned runs, 2 BB, 4 K. That is the young ace’s only postseason appearance in his young career.

Max Fried spent a large portion of 2023 on the injured list, but when healthy he pitched as you would expect the man who finished second in NL Cy Young voting in 2022 to pitch. Fried only faced off with Philadelphia once this season and was strong over 5 innings. In his career, the Phillies have gotten to him a bit more. He has a 3.62 ERA in 19 career appearance against Philadelphia. His 2.93 ERA at home in his career bodes well and if he and Strider stay on a normal schedule, he would pitch in Atlanta twice – which is great for the Braves and his 4.02 ERA in Philly.

From there, it gets tricky. Charlie Morton is injured and won’t be available until the NLCS at the earliest – should Atlanta make it that far. Fans and the organization alike were hopeful that Kyle Wright might fill the third spot in the rotation after returning in September after a lengthy stint on the IL, but it was announced earlier today that not only will he not be available, but the 28 year old will undergo shoulder surgery and miss all of 2024 as well. That leaves second-year started Bryce Elder as the only simple option to start Game 3, although that has not yet been announced. Elder has good numbers, but his 5.11 second-half ERA lines up with his below-average strikeout minus walk numbers. Elder has pitched to avergae numbers against the Phillies in two career starts, but did shut them out over 7 in his only start in Philly.

Battle of the Bullpens

Philadelphia did not make many changes in the roster coming into this round. The only change was removing rookie utility man Weston Wilson and added trade-deadline acquisition Michael Lorenzen for the longer series. Atlanta made a few surprise decisions, including carrying only 12 pitchers, including their top prospect who only has six appearance in the big leagues under his belt.

Just like the offenses, both teams have pitchers with nasty stuff in their pen. For Atlanta, Pierce Johnson has been nearly un-hitable since coming over at the trade deadline (1-1, 0.76 ERA in 23.2 IP with 32 Ks / 5 BBs w/Atlanta). Iglesias and Yates have been reliable all season long, and rookie Daysbel Hernández throws hard and the Phillies haven’t seen him before – that could be huge for the Braves late in games.

The Phillies went from having yearly bullpen problems to having one of the best pens in the majors, might be the best when talking about “stuff.” They have five relievers who average 98 mph or more on the fastball, and then you talk about Craig Kimbrel whose breaking ball still keeps hitters off balance. Plus, rookie Orion Kerkering is also a pitcher the Braves haven’t seen.

Add in the fact that their flexibility with Christopher Sanchez and Michael Lorenzen who both have extensive experience as both starters and relievers, and they have Taijuan Walker who, with a clean inning, can clean up chunks behind a starter if they get in trouble. They have plenty of lefties, righties, and pitches that move with some giddy-up – which means they have a strong, balanced bullpen. The Braves pen has good pieces, but the arrow points to the Phillies when it comes to the pen.

Overall, the rotation might be close but Philadelphia has more certainty, and when adding in the bullpen the Phillies have the stronger pitching staff. The question is – can they slow down the history-making Atlanta offense enough to let their strong lineup get to the Braves staff. And I will leave you with the below, just to get the juices flowing before first pitch.

https://x.com/NBCSPhilly/status/1710686589658022175?s=20

Photo Credit: (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)